Seoul, South Korea Arson and Axe Murders

[This post is from February 29th. I’m bumping it up temporarily.]

I got to the South Korea dancing spot on time, for once. It’s the big, ancient gate that used to serve as the entrance to the city. I got there before any of the invitees, so I pulled out my book and waited. World War Z. Great book.

It got closer and closer to 6pm, the designated dancing time. Still no people. 6:15, 6:30, I’m feeling a little hurt.

Do South Koreans hate my guts? What’d I do?

Killing time, I stumbled upon a nearby plaque.

"Domdaemun (the East Gate) was built in the year…"

Hang on. Domdaemun. East Gate. East Gate? That doesn’t sound right.

I can vaguely recall what I wrote in the invite. I pull out my guide book.

"Domdaemun. East Gate."

"Namdaemun. Southern Gate."

Crap. I’m at the wrong gate.

In my defense, they look and sound an awful lot alike. When I scanned the map, my eyes landed on Domdaemun, which was close enough to the word I was looking for.

I mean, the thing is, it’s a giant, ancient gate. There aren’t very many of them. One is unlikely to assume one is at the wrong one.

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I was about to head back to the hotel in shame when it occurred to me that there might still be a few stragglers waiting at the right location. I hopped in a cab, raced over, and even though I was an hour late, there were still a good 20 people holding out hope.

We danced.

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Despite my sincere and sustained apologizing, they made me feel even worse by showing me a video of the much bigger crowd that had only just left, dancing in front of the gate and screaming "Where the hell is matt?"

Like an arrow to my heart.

So anyway, the bulk of the crowd was an English class that had been corralled by their American teacher, Joshua. They invited me out to a Korean barbecue restaurant.

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They introduced me to Korean rice wine, which has a deceptively benign taste.

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Afterward, we went out to a bar/clubby place that played surprisingly good jazz.

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They also had a cocktail menu that was positively ribald.

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The evening was a great opportunity to interrogate a bunch of teenagers about their culture and their take on some of its finer points.

As a gamer, I’m familiar with their reputation as the most fanatical players in the world. The stories of kids spending weeks in front of their computers, dropping dead on their keyboards from malnutrition, tales of violent real-world retribution for slights committed between rival online gangs, special police task forces assigned to deal with it all. Weird stuff, and apparently not far from the truth.

I asked the girls what they think about it and got a pretty familiar answer. They play games too, but they recognize the need for balance and they struggle to get their boyfriends to go outside every once in a while.

We talked about North Korea and their feelings about reunification. I know the older generation has some deep emotions on the subject. I was surprised to learn the kids don’t really care much. The primary concern for the kids I asked was the financial burden, which I imagine would be similar to what West Germany went through. In fact, it would probably be much worse for South Korea, dealing with a sibling nation that is so astonishingly backwards, when they themselves are on a rocket sled into the future.

Things wound down. When I got to my hotel room, I sent out an apology email with a photo that I think says it all.

Oops

I invited everyone back in two days to try again.

Got up at the buttcrack of dawn the next day to go on the USO tour of the Demilitarized Zone. Turned out it wasn’t running that day, so I went back to my room and slept through most of the day. Eventually I crawled out to explore Seoul a bit.

Crazy space architecture.

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South Korea is way into fancy light displays. The shadow of Samsung looms large.

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I am unwavering in my conviction that the event depicted in this sculpture never actually happened.

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I find this one ever-so-slightly more plausible.

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Brilliant.

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Not at all brilliant.

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This is a great example of the generation gap I mentioned earlier.

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Dog clothing.

What could possibly better illustrate the shift in thinking? For their parents, it was once perfectly commonplace to eat dogs. Now their kids are dressing them up and carrying them around town as accessories.

This got me thinking: imagine if your mom wanted to eat your dog.

Wow.

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The guys who made this ice cream cone for me were unnerved by the cavalier manner with which I brandished my frozen treat. They warned me of impending disaster.

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I wandered around the electronics district hoping to find some good deals fresh from the factory floor. Sadly, the day for that sort of thing is past. Mega-retailers have closed that niche. There’s nothing worth buying on the streets of Seoul that you can’t get cheaper at Best Buy.

…at least nothing I could find.

This ice skating rink is in the middle of the city.

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I really liked the lights, so I danced in front of them. Not terribly interesting, but not much of a bother to dance in front of either.

And besides, it’s my job, right?

Okay, Demilitarized Zone. This is going to take forever.

I mean, good God it’s a fascinating situation. Truly bizarre. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard of. I’m exhausted at the thought of trying to document everything I learned. So for your benefit and mine, I will strive for concision.

The Demilitarized Zone is a band of terrain about 4 kilometers wide and 250 kilometers long, running roughly east-west between the two countries at 38 degrees north latitude. It is the mostly heavily guarded border in the world. It was designated in 1953 at the end of the Korean war, the consequence of a monumental stalemate — a fault line dividing two radically opposed social philosophies.

The fault line metaphor is extended to the point of absurdity by an educational video they show you as you enter. The version we saw was in English, but clearly translated from Korean and geared toward a Korean audience. In other words, it is totally insane.

The video starts with a little girl wandering through the forest. She becomes frightened when the screen suddenly turns red and sirens blare. She drops to the ground for cover, but then the ground splits open and she is swallowed by a massive fissure. Another victim of the Demilitarized Zone.

Holy crap!

The video goes on to make several strange and confusing statements. My favorite:

"Today, the Demilitarized Zone is home to many extinct species."

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This is the building on the North Korean side of the DMZ. You can see a teeny tiny man at the top of the steps. Here’s a better shot.

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He’s watching us. When the tour group steps out of the building on the South Korean side, it’s his job to take photos of all of us and stare at us through binoculars.

Visitors are instructed not to make eye contact with the North Korean guards or gesture to them in any way.

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That line of concrete just behind the South Korean border guard is the actual, technical border dividing the two countries. The buildings on either side are for meetings and negotiations.

This scenario begs the question: what would happen if you just ran for it.

Good question.

If you’re on the South Korean side and you head north, the South Korean guards will do everything they can to stop you. If you make it across, there’s nothing they can do. The North Koreans will (probably) not shoot at you. They will welcome you into their country, take you in for questioning, and try to figure out some use for you.

Apparently there’s a German guy who believes he’s destined to save the North Korean people, and every year or so he shows up on the tour and tries to get across. He has yet to succeed.

Now if you’re coming from North Korea and you want to head south, the situation is very different. In 1984, a Soviet tour guide named Vasily Matauzik made a run for the border. Several North Korean guards followed him across, guns blazing. South Korean guards fired back Eight North Koreans were shot and three were killed. Of the South Korean guards, one was wounded and another was killed.

Vasily Matauzik lived. He’s a professor in California now, or something like that.

I’m not sure how to feel about the guy. He got a bunch of people killed, but can you blame him for doing whatever he could to get out of there?

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This was taken inside the meeting room. The border runs along the center line of the table and between the legs of the South Korean guard. He is frozen in a modified Taekwondo stance designed for immobility. Visitors are instructed not to touch him and not to walk between him and the table. However, you can cross the border on the other side of the table and wander around in about 100 square feet of what is technically North Korea. Another South Korean guard is posted in front of the door leading out into North Korea.

I asked permission from the USO tour guide, handed the camera to one of the other visitors, and danced in front of the door.

…so I got a North Korean dancing clip.

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This is called the Bridge of No Return. It’s where the two countries orchestrated their prisoner exchanges at the end of the war and in the years after. It is so named because a prisoner, once given the choice of whether to cross it, was told he could never cross back into the country where he was captured.

The dramatic tension of this decision eludes me. I’m guessing it was a tougher choice for the North Korean soldiers than the South Koreans.

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A tree used to stand where this picture was taken, very near to the bridge on the South Korean side. In the summer months it blocked the view for South Korean border guards, so in August of 1976 they decided to trim it. This led to what is called the DMZ Axe Murder Incident. I’m going to get the details wrong, so if you’re really interested, just click on the link for the full story.

A team of 18 soldiers and workers from the Joint Security Force (our side) went out to take care of the problem. While they were working, some North Korean soldiers walked over and yelled at them to stop. They didn’t stop. One thing led to another. The North Koreans grabbed some axes and clubs and attacked. Here’s a photo.

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They killed one US officer who was overseeing the action. Another US officer survived by crawling into a ditch and hiding.

A tense political stand-off ensued with conflicting versions of events. Three days later, the UN initiated Operation Paul Bunyan.

A convoy of 23 vehicles raced up to the tree unannounced. Sixteen men armed with chainsaws jumped out under the protection of two armed platoons and a 64-man special forces company.

Cover for the operation was provided by 20 utility helicopters and 7 cobra attack helicopters. B-52s circled overhead, escorted by F-4 and F-5 fighter planes, while the aircraft carrier Midway waited on standby near the shore.

The tree was successfully chopped down.

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Someone put a plaque up.

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What you’re looking at there is the tallest flagpole in the world. Mounted atop it is the second largest flag in the world (the biggest is apparently in Maryland). It stands in the center of Kjong-dong, a city near the border on the North Korean side. We were able to see it from a hilltop viewing station that offers a pretty substantial glimpse into the country.

Here’s what’s amazing about Kjong-dong: it’s empty. No one lives there. It’s a fake propaganda city that was built as a rebuttal to a farming village on the South Korean side. South Korea had a village, so North Korea had to have a city. South Korea put a really big flag in their village, so North Korea had to have an even bigger one.

This is what it boils down to. This is what South Korea is up against. A sociopathic infant.

The tour took us into one of the North Korean tunnels. We couldn’t take pictures, unfortunately. Throughout the 1970s, South Korea kept finding tunnels being built under their feet by North Koreans in a hair-brained effort to mount a surprise invasion. The plan was to get one of these tunnels far enough across the border that they could emerge in an unwatched patch of forest and pour hundreds of thousands of infantry through the tunnel before anyone noticed. They never even came close to success, and let’s ignore the glaring impracticalities of trying to invade a country on foot…it still scared the bejeezus out of South Koreans, and that’s fair enough.

The tunnel was hot, wet, narrow, and low-cielinged. All along it we could see holes in the rock where the diggers stuck their dynamite. About 600 meters in, we hit a concrete wall with a tiny porthole. On the other side of that wall is a very big gun pointed at North Korea, followed by a mine field, followed by another concrete wall, another mine field, and one more concrete wall. Beyond that, North Korea. If North Korea ever tries to use the tunnel again, it’s not likely to work out well for them.

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Howsabout some DMZ rice? Sounds delicious.

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As we left, a helicopter landed with a bunch of good old-fashioned cheerleaders coming to entertain the troops. I was surprised to hear the troops still go for that sort of thing. Seems kinda quaint, doesn’t it?

I got back to Seoul in time to get to Namdaemun for the make-up dance. A good crowd turned out a second time. I expressed my continued apologies and gratitude. We danced.

And then, 12 days later, the 600 year old structure of Namdaemun was burned down by an arsonist.

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I know from all the emails I got afterward that Namdaemun means a lot to South Koreans as a symbol of their country. To dance with joy in front of it just moments before its untimely destruction stirred some real emotion in people. I don’t know what to say about that other than that I will, of course, be including the clip in the video.

27 Responses to Seoul, South Korea Arson and Axe Murders

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this, Jeff. I trust your observations of what you see in a country about a thousand times more than anything I’d hear on the “news”. (And a million times more than anything on “Faux News”.)

  2. ml

    Hi there. I really enjoyed reading this entry. I learned more about DMZ than from my 13 years of living in S. Korea :-) I’ll look forward to your video clip you took at Namdaemun

  3. Rich

    Fascinating! The DMX axe murder incident is truly bizarre. Actually the whole DMZ zone is truly bizarre. It makes the Berlin wall seem almost normal. I knew almost nothing about this until now. Maybe a movie about this would help. 😉

  4. Henry Hollister

    I went to South Korea a few months before the gate was burned. I was there visiting family and my uncle and cousins took me to the gate.

    My friend and I actually saw a lot of the same things you did. We didn’t make it to the DMZ though.

  5. Marco

    @Rich: There is a pretty good movie on the DMZ available, it’s a South Korean production called “JSA”.

    @Matt: Thanks for going to South Korea. I consider it a quite interesting place, which people seem to know surprisingly little about. Make sure to do some hiking on your next visit.

  6. delani

    hey matt, i went to namdaemun recently and there are poems and flowers and calligraphy paintings posted all around the wall that now encases it while it is being rebuilt.
    it meant alot to me to be able to dance in front of it, thank you for coming.

  7. MattW

    Wow, I had no idea that Namdaemun was burned. My wife is Korean and we traveled to Korea for a month back in October. I was lucky enough to tour a large part of the country (amazing place), including Namdaemun while we stayed in Seoul. That really breaks my heart to hear about the fire.

    @Marco, it is amazing how little most westerners seem to know about Korea. I enjoyed the time I spent there and can’t wait to go back.

    @Matt, Thanks for the great blog posts, I really enjoy reading them. Oh, and I’m glad to see you spell Matt the right way 😉

  8. Dongbin Jang

    Hey, I’m actually a South Korean, and I saw your video on a popular Korean website. There were lots and lots of comments about your video. I just wanted to let you know that more and more people are getting to know you, including myself! There are many interesting points about Korean culture and places on your journal. I guess it’s really different to see Korea as a foreigner. Anyway, thanks! I truly enjoyed your work!

  9. Scott

    I’m pretty sure that the German guy you mention has once been in my house while I was living in Korea.

  10. Thank you so much for documenting Namdaemun so beautifully one last time before it was destroyed. Namdaemun was an extremely significant national symbol to our people, and it certainly meant a lot when it got burned down. It would sort of be like the Eiffel Tower getting destroyed for the French, or when 9/11 occurred to Americans. So thank you for saving one last image of it and sharing it with the rest of the world.

    On another point, I find your observations on Korean culture very amusing. I would actually like to talk to you more about it, maybe kind of explain it more and change some misconceptions and stereotypes (such as the “dog eating” tradition)… Ever think about dropping by Korea again?? ;P If you do, I hope we can talk!! Thank you, and I will continue to look forward to your videos :)

  11. JiYoung Yoon

    Matt, i’m 20 years old korean girl.
    now your video has been very famous in here, because a popular social network site(like facebook or myspace) introduced your video.
    so many koreans even shed tears when namdaemun was burning. i also gazed vacantly at it burning…
    i want to say you thank you for visiting korea, and uploading our proud heritage. if you come to korea once again, i also want to meet you, talk with you, and dance together! until then, have a good time. i’ll always cheer you!

  12. Catherine

    Hey Matt,

    There were actually two Army officers killed that day in 1976. One was killed in the opening minutes of the attack and the others killed when the North Koreans followed him into the ditch. One of the officers Arthur Bonifas is remembered by the name of the camp where the JSA is located.

    I was in Korea for only a few weeks before we saw on TV about Naedaemun burning down. It was pretty sad for a lot of Koreans

    Oh yeah, dog is tasty, you should try it sometime

  13. Sang Wook Park

    Hey Matt!! U r awesome!!
    i saw ur sweet vid… Thank U!!
    but last picture was so embarassed me…
    that was memoriable event… like 9/11..

    and also could u change the name of our landmarks?…
    Namdaemun -> Sungnyemun
    Domdaemun -> Heunginjimun

    because those names were named by Japanese…
    Original name was Sungnyemun and Heunginjimun…

    Thank You!

  14. Eric Kim

    hey Matt =D

    I was born in Korea and was raised there

    went to elementry school in Iowa State(U.S.)
    And Graduated highschool from Melbourne Australia

    This is all true…

    ANYWAY!!
    about the statement that confused you

    “Today, the Demilitarized Zone is home to many extinct species.”

    apparently this is true, my fellow Koreans probably didn’t explain this to you in such detail. They probably meant the forest part of DMZ, not the heavily guarded part.

    DMZ was built and have been kept from civilian personel. Such an isolation kept the unpolluted environment and provided all the ‘extinct species’ a good home.

    All in all, Matt I saw your video today (dancing 2008) and it was aspiring. The diversity of the world shown on the video gave me a new goal in life. thank you for sharing your great experience.

    oh and now I’m a college student in University of Texas at San Antonio

    all the best =D
    -E.K-

  15. Eric Kim

    oh..and about what the previous post said..

    Namdaemun -> Sungnyemun
    Domdaemun -> Heunginjimun

    well…

    the initial names are the ones that are most commonly known as… say if I were to take a cab to go to those places in Korea, I’ll call out the names like Namdaemun Domdaemun…

    oh and it’s not domdaemun
    it’s dongdaemun…….

    however, the unique names given by our ancestors ( the creators of those places even..) ought to be respected

    so I think it would be better to put down both names of those places.
    just an opinion =D

  16. tmddngka

    actually I am Korean and the accident occured at that night made nations discouraged intensly. It was more than just a single fire. It meaned that the whole history of jo-sun (It existed for 600 years) had distroyed. we feel really ashamed to our ancestors about this

  17. Daniel

    First of all as sad as the gate burning down is, its not comparable to a terrorist attack on the world trade center towers which when i was in South Korea, people were actually laughing about. All Koreans care about is Korea, so naturally the destruction of the gate is a huge fucking deal to them, Koreans are useless now just as they were useless to stop the north koreans in the first fucking place.

  18. Daniel

    I had an awesome time in Korea, but only with about 50 % of the people i met, the other 50% were anti American, anti foreigner and lets face it flat out racist. How many Koreans live in Canada and America alone, and we took them in with open arms, fought a war for them you think they could show a little gratitude once in a while maybe? Seeing as there wouldn’t even be a south korea if it wasnt for us, it would just be the communist shithole republic of korea.

  19. daniel

    At any rate it is sad to loose a piece of physical history like the gate, as i am a historian myself I feel for the Korean people as they have lost a piece of their history, but it is by no means gone. I just cant stand how Koreans care so much about their own people and country and blood but absolutely nothing about other countries, events and so fourth. Your just lucky the north koreans didnt burn the whole damn city down the last time they came through

  20. Eric

    It is ethnocentric, egoistic, and downright hateful people like the person above that make me feel embarrassed to be an American. Furthermore, comments like the above that just spread the hate, so I have not the faintest idea what the person above was trying to accomplish, but I personally request that the three comments above be deleted.

    Anyway, I was in Korea for a year on exchange and I LOVED it. Such a nice, friendly atmosphere, beautiful scenary, and awesome people. Seeing the pictures above brought back so many fond memories.

  21. hana lee

    I was also embarrased that i read Daniel’s comments… i know there’s many good americans not like Daniel. But i think Daniel shows some attitude that american feels about korea. when i chat in global online chatting like omegle, lots of americans think just like Daniel. And it makes me have hostility to america. so i ask you, PLEASE THINK OTHERS BEFORE YOU TALK.

  22. Spiderbait

    Can anyone tell me what the German guy’s name is? I want to look him up but, try as I may, I can’t seem to be able to find him.

  23. Lovely post. In Thailand one can stay with local people instead of staying in hotels and guest houses. People can save money in this way and learn more about local culture. On link to facebook.com one can get 1 night for free.I would like to say thank you for sharing this cool article. Bookmarked and sharing for friends.

  24. lee

    hey, i was the korean army who standing behind you when you dance in the DMZ
    actually, i saw your video few years ago.. at that time i was little bit surprised… haha…
    time past 4 years already.. so sometime i miss that days.. and that is my point to writing msg to you..
    if you have more picture about me and my friends, i want to see that more!! haha

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